Surgeon Thomas Pollitt, groaning with typhus, finds himself in the middle of an early 19th-century mutiny aboard the hell-ship Corinthia. He has been trying to protect the convict Irish men and women who are being shipped to New South Wales and being savagely mistreated by the ship's Officers and head surgeon, Sir William Compact. During the mutiny, Pollitt falls into the sea and is rescued by John and Mary Brannan, two mutineers. He feels a great debt to them and tries to ease their servitude during the ensuing months while he builds a hospital for the rotting New South Wales colony. The colony's officers have formed a tontine to circumvent the rum laws and use Pollitt's discreet dock to unload their stores; in repayment, he is allowed to protect the Brannans from death for mutiny. Pollitt undertakes to expose Sir William Compact as a homosexual brute, but Sir William takes strychnine rather than shame his wife Elizabeth with his deeds. Pollitt himself falls in love with the widow and marries her only to find the woman crazy and frigid. He's also in love with Mary Brannan. But beyond the love interest is a gripping picture of hospital life in the wilds and of George Rowlick, a surgeon and laudanum-addict who is far and away the lustiest wit in the novel and who steals every moment he's present. The action builds toward a climactic rebellion, Elizabeth's final departure, and Pollitt's flight with Mary to build a new life in the deeper wilds. The rich, incidental dialogue almost makes up for the commonplaces and contrivances of the plot.